Social networks enabled by communications technology are providing powerful ways of delivering a political message, says E&T.
Now that the British General Election campaign is underway, voters may be expecting a deluge of email spam and browser pop-ups. After all, isn't this supposed to be the election in which the Internet really makes a difference? Hasn't the 2008 American Presidential race whetted candidates' appetites for online opportunities?
The voters' fears reflect the traditional political dialogue. Candidates usually address voters directly and from a distance. The established tools include rationed TV and radio broadcasts, direct mail, print advertising, and a lot of spin. Even the best-known Internet techniques fit this model: official websites, email lists and dedicated YouTube channels. But if anything can be taken from the American experience, it's that online campaigning is not just about digital pamphleteering. The 2010 campaigns will use more indirect methods, spun out from social networks.
Ask any marketeer the best way of influencing a consumer and the answer will be 'word of mouth'. So it goes for retail politics. A candidate can make a convincing pitch but there is always a hint of Mandy Rice-Davies about it - 'He would say that, wouldn't he? Hear the same pitch from someone you know, and it carries more weight.
'It's no longer just about communicating with voters through online tools; it's about communicating with voters who communicate with other voters,' says Peter Slutsky, strategic relationships manager for social networking platform Ning. 'We call it 'organising the organisers'.'
The idea is not new, at least not in Web years. It emerged during Governor Howard Dean's unsuccessful run for the US Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2004. His campaign used the Internet to attract, inform and deploy a passionate cadre of supporters, nicknamed Deaniacs. But it was President Barack Obama's victorious 2008 campaign that polished the concept and then applied it with plenty of discipline. That 'Obama for America' effort has become 'Organising for America' (OfA) within the Democratic National Committee (DNC). It has added further technological capabilities but the fundamental idea remains the same.
Healthcare is a good thing - pass it on
'We think of it as a 'snowflake' or a 'hub-and-spoke' model,' explains Natalie Foster, the DNC's director of New Media. 'We push out information to our community. Its members are out there in the real world connected to other supporters, but also connected to friends and family members and to civic organisations that may or may not be supporters. But a big part of the idea is, 'Pass it on'.'
Foster's team is aiming to use this web of influencers, now millions strong, to get Americans to accept recently signed legislation on healthcare after an especially bitter political battle.
'Up until now, our number one goal has been to help pass the reform. Now that we've got it, we have switched to educating folks as to what's in the bill and what's available to them,' she says, 'We've got a number of digital tools to do that.'
OfA has an online events system that helps activists organise and host meetings in their physical communities. The events can be aimed at everyone or at specific groups, and tuned according to the audience. The site also has material to print for distribution to attendees.
Meanwhile, there are links, embeddable videos and other digital resources that can be distributed using Facebook, Google Voice, Twitter or good old email, again for general or audience-specific consumption.
'Then, we have some online tools that we built over the course of this year,' says Foster. 'One is a talk-radio call-in tool - radio.barackobama.com. It tells you what show is on the air right now, provides a way for you to stream the show live, and gives you the phone number as well as a couple of talking points, so you can call in. Another is a letter-to-the-editor tool where you can see all your local media and choose one or two to write to. There we just provide bullet points so that when people compose the letters, they speak from the heart.'
Such techniques are not exclusive to the DNC. Earlier this year, Republican Senatorial candidate Scott Brown used similar tools to seize a 'safe' Massachusetts seat from the Democrats.
'People have looked at new media as they would an old-style communication channel, but this is about advocacy and organisation, and also empowering your volunteers,' says political advertising consultant Chris Nolan of Spot-On.com. 'It isn't just about sending the message; it's about getting people to do that for you and - the part that gets forgotten - getting information back from them about what voters are thinking.'
The most discussed innovation from the Scott Brown campaign was an iPhone/Blackberry app called Walking Edge that told volunteers where to canvass and provided a form so they could feed back the results. It gave Brown's team constantly updated insights that meant they had a better sense of where votes were still up for grabs when the race tightened. And underlining just what empowering followers can do for you, the app was written by a walk-in helper, not an R&D staffer.
Ning has really pushed its willingness to provide valuable material in challenging Facebook as a vehicle for political social networking. 'One big difference between us and our rivals is that we share member data with network creators,' says Slutsky.
'Every time someone tells a friend about you and they join your network, you get all the information that they provide. You can make that part of your voter contact programme, part of your fundraising programme, part of your volunteer programme. It adds a new dimension.'
Again, empowerment matters. 'If you become a fan of someone on Facebook, follow them on Twitter or subscribe to their YouTube feed, you're saying, 'I support this'. If you join a Ning network - particularly these activist networks - you're saying not only what you support but also what you're going to do about it,' adds Slutsky.
Finally, there is a Moore's Law-like twist to the trend, as technology again delivers more for less. 'Back in the day, volunteers were people who came into the campaign office and sat behind a desk to make some calls,' says Fred Stutzman, a teaching Fellow in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. 'Now you can reach those volunteers through social networks, but they'll then reach out to people they know who might not have come in, and you can get them on board too.
'You've got a bigger universe and you don't need all those offices. You get these people working for you, and they'll even do it from home. You can send the information they need and the jobs you want them to do right to their kitchen table. That lowers the cost of campaigning or means you get much more on your budget.'
The UK's 2010 General Election may still overwhelm voters with claim and counterclaim, rumour and revelation, and plenty of Sturm und Drang - but where there are significant differences in its execution, they may not be those you expect. Hear that, the call coming into your mobile, the one with the number for your squash partner? Actually it might be David. Or Gordon. Or Nick. Or Nigel. Or Alex. Or Wyn. Or, more to the point, your local, friendly proxy.